By Jake Blumgart
On November 4, 2011 Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and eight of her Democratic colleagues ended their week-long "food stamp challenge." During the challenge, the congresspeople maintained a $4.50-per-day food budget to better understand the situation of those in the food stamp program, which delivers an average weekly benefit of $32.59. (The program was officially renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in 2004.)
"There are a lot of myths associated with food stamps," including "the argument that it is rife with fraud" and the idea that beneficiaries are shiftless, said Speier. "Many of those who are on food stamps are the working poor. I really feel strongly that unless we walk in the shoes of someone on food stamps, we have no idea. I had no idea, I really didn't."
The food stamp challenge highlights the realities of a program in peril and serves as a necessary corrective to the narrative promoted by today's ultra-conservative Republican Party. The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece calling SNAP "a magnet for abuses and absurdities" and a "conspiracy against self-reliance." In March, the powerful House Agriculture Committee recommended cutting SNAP in lieu of farm subsidies, which largely benefit the wealthy. And in October Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, fumed, "No program in our government has surged out of control more dramatically than food stamps."
The congressional supercommittee, which has been attempting to reduce the deficit, eyed the program hungrily as well, even though SNAP costs a mere $68 billion of a federal budget that is larger than $3.5 trillion -- a drop in the bucket compared to the reckless, wasteful and fraud-prone Pentagon spending or the nation's unbelievably high healthcare costs.
The attacks on SNAP are wrong on their merits. They are also cruel, especially if the accompanying proposals are enacted. There are currently 45.8 million people on SNAP (an astounding one out of every seven Americans). Less than half of beneficiaries are of working age, but a majority of adults on the program are underemployed or work jobs with wages so low they can't always afford housing, utilities and transportation in addition to sufficient food for their families. They aren't lazy or weak; they're trapped by low-wage employment in an economy that's mostly creating jobs that pay less than $13.52 an hour.
Perhaps SNAP's congressional opponents wouldn't be such a danger if voters better understood the program. But as Speier noted, there are many myths about the program that poison the public perception of it. Here are four rebuttals to common misconceptions about the federal food stamp program.
1. The program is rife with fraud and abuse.
In the Wall Street Journal editorial, SNAP is denounced as an "unmonitored welfare program" that hemorrhages billions in unjustifiable and fraudulent claims. This is demonstrably false.
In 2010, the Government Accountability Office found that "the national rate of food stamp trafficking [trading benefits for money or non-food goods] declined from about 3.8 cents per dollar of benefits" in 1993 to 1 cent per dollar today -- a historic decline. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, SNAP "had the lowest error rate in history at 3.81%. Over 98% of those receiving benefits are eligible for SNAP."
Steps can be taken to bring those numbers down even further, but to argue, as the GOP has, that sweeping cuts are needed to address minimal levels of fraud and abuse is akin to recommending a howitzer barrage as an appropriate response to a household fruit fly infestation.
A more appropriate response would be to double down on the USDA's successful anti-fraud campaign. The Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, cards that went into circulation in 2004 (replacing traditional food stamps) make it significantly easier to detect abusive users and the retailers that enable them. The USDA employs over 100 staffers to investigate these crimes. Hiring a few more to bolster the effort makes more sense than letting millions of Americans go hungry.
2. There are too many "hipsters" and college students on food stamps.
Since the start of the Great Recession, the food stamp population has almost doubled, from 26 million in 2007 to between 45 and 47 million starting in 2009. This increase has largely been the result of the cratering economy and persistent unemployment making more Americans poorer and therefore eligible for food stamps. But the government also set higher income eligibility limits in recent years (130 percent of the poverty line, or annual income of $14,157 for an individual) and eased accessibility restrictions on the unemployed and childless.
These changing criteria should be welcomed. Too frequently social programs (e.g., Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit) are limited to families, while low-income people without children are left to fend for themselves. These attempts to bring policy in line with economic realities have broadened access to food assistance to demographics that stretch the stereotypical image of "poverty," including jobless professionals, students, young people and people with middle-class backgrounds.
Presumably it is these people who the Wall Street Journal refers to as "trust fund babies driving Rolls Royces [getting] free food courtesy of Uncle Sam." Salon's coverage of this non-issue brought swarms of commenters (478 as of this writing), some of whom responded humanely, but many who denounced "self-imposed poverty" and called the "hipster" recipients a "burden to society."
"There are some people who may have a hip looking haircut or a tattoo who are unemployed or underemployed and have the same legal rights and moral rights to food as anyone else," noted Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?. "Anyway, the vast majority of people who are using food stamps were poor, and are now poorer."
The "hipsters on food stamps" narrative gets a spotlight that is disproportionate to actual trends. For one thing, beneficiaries aren't "secretly middle-class." Close to 90 percent of households that use SNAP live below the poverty line, while 40 percent of households live at half of the poverty line (less than $10,000 a year for a family of three). According to the USDA, close to half of the beneficiaries are children (48 percent), and another 8 percent are over 60. A majority of those who are of working age are working. In the 1990s, half of new food stamp beneficiaries participated in the program for eight months or less -- basically, until they found a job. There is no reason to assume that the same isn't true for today's beneficiaries; it just takes them longer to find employment.
SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that anyone who is eligible can gain access. Just because someone graduated from college, or grew up outside of poverty, doesn't mean she don't need help now. This recession devastated the assets and savings accounts of many middle-class people, so relying on family isn't an option for many individuals. Meanwhile, the job market remains exceptionally weak. More people need food assistance now, no matter their background.
3. Recipients "waste" their benefits on unhealthy food.
Many policy analysts and other influential figures argue that recipients should not be allowed to use food stamps to purchase soda or other junk food. This proposal is both demeaning and doesn't address any actual problems. First of all, there is little evidence that, given options, low-income people eat less healthily than middle-class people. (One recent study shows that poor people tend to eat less fast food than their middle-class counterparts -- and food stamps can't be used to purchase hot food anyway.) It isn't as though food stamp beneficiaries are buying unusual amounts of soda, candy, other junk food. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "Almost 90 percent of the food consumed by food SNAP households goes to fruits and vegetables, grain products, meats, or dairy products."
The reason that many low-income areas have higher obesity rates than wealthier areas is that low-quality food, like white bread, is cheaper and more easily accessible than, say, fruits and vegetables, especially in areas where supermarkets are scarce.
4. The program is too generous, and food stamps are a significant contributor to national debt.
Conservatives have made a great show of moaning about the recent explosion in SNAP's caseload. Those who would make this an issue (ahem, Jeff Sessions and the Wall Street Journal) are being dumb-headed or malicious, or both. The food stamp program is designed to be responsive to economic downturns. The reason over 15 million people have been added to the rolls is simple: We've suffered the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, and the economy is still stagnant. SNAP is doing exactly what it is meant to in these circumstances: ease the plight of those who have been negatively affected by the downturn and boost their purchasing power.
The idea that benefits are too generous is absurd. Monthly benefits run to $133.80 a month for each member of the household, or about $4.50 a day -- although poorer households get more generous benefits, while increased income leads to stingier assistance. And, again, food stamps can't be used to purchase hot food, alcohol, tobacco, or other non-food items.
Also, the expanding food stamp program is not even close to being a significant driver of our national debt. As previously stated, SNAP rolls expand and contract with the health of the economy. If and when the nation gets to a better place economically, the number of enrollees will decline; it's no miracle. The only reason food assistance is being targeted is because the constituencies that use food stamps -- the poor and nearly-poor -- are not particularly powerful, especially compared to the those who protect genuinely wasteful spending, like agricultural subsidies and the gluttonous military budget.
Cutting food stamps in the name of debt relief would be a PR stunt, a political ploy. And while its effect on America's debt will be negligible, the suffering that would be inflicted on millions of Americans, almost half of them children, would be very real.
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